The Political Power of the Social Norm against Prejudice

Published 5 November 2013 / By COMPAS Communications

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(Blog post on Blinder, Ford, Ivarsflaten, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: How the Antiprejudice Norm Affects Policy and Party Preferences in Great Britain and Germany”, AJPS, October 2013)

frame A great deal of research in political science and other fields has examined the role of prejudice in political attitudes. Political divisions, party choices and even civil wars are often structured around inter-group conflict. In everyday life, most people tend to favor their own group – this can happen even when people are divided on the basis of arbitrary or trivial factors (e.g. according to a preference for Kandinsky’s paintings over Klee’s, or vice versa), and becomes all the more consequential when related to long-standing entrenched divisions in society along lines of race, ethnicity, or religion. It is understandable, therefore, that many scholars of political and of social psychology have sought insight into the nature and impact of prejudice.

But there is another side to the story, at least in the contemporary politics of the US and Western Europe. My research with co-authors Robert Ford (University of Manchester) and Elisabeth Ivarsflaten (University of Bergen) examines social norms against prejudice in several Western European countries. We take our cue from research showing that in post-WWII Europe, as well as post-Civil Rights Movement America, the most virulent and blatant forms of racism has been rejected and confined to the margins of society. (See key works by David Art on Europe and Tali Mendelberg on the US.)

The social norm against prejudice, we argue, acts as an independent motivating force. It shapes people’s political choices and their responses to campaign messages and political parties. Its power to shape behavior, however, varies greatly across individuals and across situations. Some people are more motivated to follow this norm than others; equally important, some political situations place the norm directly at stake, while other situations are more ambiguous situations and allow greater scope for acting on biases (often hidden or even unconscious ones) without the feeling that one is violating the anti-prejudice norm.

The influence of the norm on individual choice
Our piece in the October 2013 issue of the AJPS shows the power of anti-prejudice norms to affect political decisions, by examining both individual and situational differences in its force. We measure individuals’ motivation to follow the norm, using a series of survey questions that we adapted from the American social psychological research (by Devine and Plant, Dunton and Fazio, and Crandall and Eshleman), and validated in a previous pilot study in Norway. We focus on internal motivation to control prejudice (IMCP) – this is when individuals want to avoid appearing prejudiced even to themselves, as opposed to the motivation to avoid the appearances of prejudice in the eyes of others.

We then show the impact of the norm in several ways, two of them involving controlled experiments. In our Citizenship Experiment, we find that British respondents are much more likely to support equal treatment for asylum seekers if they have been granted citizenship. No surprise there, of course. But, more interesting, the “citizenship” treatment has a much larger effect on those who express a stronger motivation to control or avoid prejudice. This suggests that the treatment’s impact works through the anti-prejudice norm.

We find stronger evidence in a second experiment in which we provide participants with an ambiguous argument about policy for Britain's Muslim minorities. The Muslim Schools Experiment makes use of two features of the British political context. First, Britain has two small, but widely discussed, anti-immigration parties:  the British National Party (BNP), which has a reputation for blatant racism, fascism and xenophobia and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which came onto the scene as a party of Euroskepticism before increasingly campaigning on an anti-immigration platform. Second, Britain has a long tradition of state funded religious schooling, with the Church of England (Britain's state church) and the Catholic church running many taxpayer funded schools, but this tradition is under debate as Britain's new Muslim minority look to set up similar taxpayer funded Islamic schools. We provided our respondents with arguments against these Islamic schools, and varied the political source of the arguments. We find that the arguments are convincing, unless they come from the extreme right BNP. Further, we find that people highly motivated by the anti-prejudice norm are not convinced by UKIP either – it takes the mainstream validation of the Conservative party as messenger to persuade members of this group to shift to supporting a discriminatory policy.

Following your “better angels”
Finally, we find that internal motivation to avoid prejudice is a significant predictor of vote choice in both Britain and Germany, even when taking into account immigration policy preferences. Motivation to control prejudice is unrelated to support for mainstream right-leaning parties, but is a strong predictor of rejection of extreme right parties. These results support our contention that motivation to control prejudice is not the mere mirror image of prejudice or anti-immigrant sentiment. Anti-immigrant sentiment increases support for all three parties of the right, but, by contrast, motivation to control prejudice influences support for the mainstream and the extreme right differently.

Taken together, the empirical evidence suggests that many European voters are pulled in one direction by their “better angels”—their internal motivation to control prejudice—and in another by negative responses to stigmatized groups such as asylum seekers and Muslims. They are likely to heed their better angels” if they perceive that the norm against prejudice is clearly at stake, but to act on ingrained negative responses in more ambiguous situations.